The Magic Beach


When I was little, I would watch my nanny picking her way slowly around the garden, stopping every step or two to examine some plant or other. I thought her legs didn't work.

Why else would she take so long to get anywhere?

Elderly legs might have been part of the reason, but in recent years, my mother is doing exactly the same thing.

Her legs work fine, but a snail’s pace is her preference. Obviously there is something else going on here.

Older people enjoy the details that faster, younger people frequently miss.

They savor things and they are mindful. Older people and the very young both seem to share this gift.

The other week, I spent a delightful few days at the beach. Puppies and small children were obviously having the best time, but a beach walk with a toddler can take forever. They are intrigued by every detail.

However, I didn't see any elderly people at the beach. None at all. I started wondering how long it had been since my mother had really properly experienced a beach.

Sometimes I drive Mum just outside the city to a place by the sea. We drink tea and have cakes at a café, then we wander over the road, sit on a log and contemplate the horizon. It’s all pretty civilized but strangely sterile—not like going to the beach at all.

The day of our “real beach experience” dawns warm, windless and overcast.

The road trip up takes more than an hour, and Mum loves every minute. We drive through small towns and Mum tells me about taking the train to visit school friends at baches (the Kiwi term for modest vacation homes near the beach). We pass the place where U.S. marines were posted at the end of the Second World War. She tells me about her friend’s sister who got pregnant by a sailor and had to go up north for a while.

It isn't just the places we are passing that spark new-old memories. It’s the trees, the birds, the clouds, everything. I feel like I’m driving a tour bus and Mum is doing the commentary.

Eventually we turn off the main road and head for the sea. The place is practically deserted.

“Nobody’s here,” says Mum. “People coming from overseas, they must find it hard to believe!”

I unload the rug and the picnic basket and then I take Mum’s arm. We spend several minutes choosing the best spot before staggering down the flower-strewn track.

“Gazanias,” says Mum, pointing at the starry flowers sprouting from the dunes like golden miracles.

I spread out the rug and we collapse in a heap. Mum sits up and runs her fingers through the pale, powdery sand. We consume sausage rolls, cherries and a bit of fruit cake. Seagulls gather round and shuffle in expectantly.

I pour lukewarm tea from the thermos. It’s much too cold to drink.

“Nonsense,” says Mother. “It’s perfect. Everything tastes better at the beach.”

The clouds have disappeared, the sand’s baking and the sea is calling.

“Come on Mum, let’s go for a paddle!” My mother gives me a look.

We walk down to the line where the sand turns hard and wet, just before the waves start licking the beach.

I kick off my jandals and I hold Mum as she stands on one foot and then the other, shakily removing her shoes.

“I’ve got good feet,” says Mum, wiggling her toes. “I’ve never liked my legs, but I’ve got good Maori feet.”

Next thing we are paddling in the sea, me holding Mum and Mum holding me, laughing and kicking in the warm, shallow water and scattering pipis (clam-like molluscs that can suspend themselves in the water column) all around us.

Later on, we drive home warm and sandy, first with a few stories, and then long stretches of contented silence.

“How long since you’ve paddled in the sea?” I ask.

“I can’t remember,” says Mum as the car draws up at the rest home.

Then she turns to me and kisses my forehead. “Thank you, dear. I’ve had the loveliest afternoon.”

Sarah Jane is a freelance writer/researcher and part-time caregiver for her mother Eleanor* who has dementia and lives at a rest home nearby. Sarah and her mother spend Saturdays enjoying each other’s company, pottering about and having the occasional adventure. Sarah lives in New Zealand where she writes and speaks about dementia-related issues.

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This peaches-and-cream story is a far cry from most caregivers' experiences. Two takeaways:

1.) By design, Sarah Jane gets to be "just" a visiting daughter -- because mom is in facility care. Kudos to the family, for making this brave and often unpopular decision.

2.) By luck, Sarah Jane's mother is the most pleasant dementia patient on the planet. Throughout the whole story, I thought mom was just slowing down. Had no idea mom had dementia, until I read Sarah Jane's bio at the end.

After scrolling thru Sarah Jane's other stories, I'm even more flummoxed by her mother's capacity. Complex stitch work. Knitting for charity. Cheerfully embraces change of scenery.

Count your blessings, Sarah Jane. Most of us didn't get that level of engagement and cooperation from a parent pre-dementia. May you be spared the barrage of NO and "too busy" and "I can't" -- and extreme mismanagement of daily life -- that extinguishes hobbies, day trips and reminiscing.
this is exactly what I did with my mother every chance I got....
before the alz. got too far... The last time was bitter sweet, she was so happy, but tried to run into the ocean. soon after, she had to be placed.
I miss our beach and ice cream days
I agree that it wouldn't be a practical option for most of us because either a physical or mental impairment would get in the way, but isn't the idea lovely? I'm a person that craves the outdoors and it pains me to see how the world shrinks down for our elders, finally to just the halls of their facility or the walls of their bedrooms. Oh, if only I could get my mom into the car we could take slow country drives with the windows rolled down while I describe what I see, she could hear the insects buzz or hear the waves at the beach and smell the fresh air, perhaps even enjoy a lick or two of ice cream. Wishful thinking.